Rotorua lobbyist Lyall Thurston has vowed to continue the fight for mandatory fortification of bread.
After an eight-week consultation period, Minister for Primary Industries Kate Wilkinson yesterday announced the fortification of bread with folate will remain voluntary, bitterly disappointing Mr Thurston who has spent the past 30 years campaigning to make it mandatory.
Ms Wilkinson said the clear message she received was that people wanted choice - 88 of the 134 submissions supported voluntary fortification.
She said the Government would continue to work with the bread industry to increase the fortification rate up to 50 per cent and would continue initiatives such as subsidised folic acid tablets for women of child-bearing age.
Mr Thurston, a respected public health advocate and spokesman for the Coalition of Parents with Children with Spina Bifida, said his phone had been running hot since the announcement with professors, doctors and campaigners around the world expressing shock at the decision.
"I can't describe my disappointment," he said.
" It's an incredibly sad day for public health in New Zealand and for the health of babies yet to be born."
He said research showed mandatory fortification could have reduced the incidences of babies born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida by more than 75 per cent, without any harmful effects to others.
While Mr Thurston and his supporters were "beside themselves with disappointment", industry groups have welcomed the decision.
Annette Campbell of the New Zealand Association of Bakers said retaining the voluntary regime was the right approach for New Zealand.
She said about 34 lines of packaged breads were now fortified and available to consumers.
"We look forward to continuing our work with the ministry towards increasing the amount of fortified breads available and providing all consumers with real choices."
The NZ Food & Grocery Council also supported the minister's decision.
"In our view this is the common sense way to treat this issue and preserve consumer choice without dosing every single loaf of bread," said council chief executive Katherine Rich.
She said the food industry supported the Government's aim of improving folate levels in women of child-bearing age but said it didn't make sense to expose everyone to increased folate levels to achieve that.
However, Mr Thurston expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a voluntary regime.
He said he would "continue to pummel politicians and decision makers" as the the human cost in giving up the fight would be too great.
"Industry has won the battle but it hasn't won the war."